Monday, September 14, 2009

Two more anthology reviews

As I've been really busy with installing the show and then preparing for all the events of the last weekend, I neglected to mention a couple of reviews we got. First of all, here is Paul Dwyer's wonderful review of the book that he posted on Amazon, and which he has allowed me to reprint in full:

Since their ostensible beginnings as passing amusements in the pages of 19th century newspapers, comics have had their peaks (the praises heaped upon George Herriman's Krazy Kat by the literati of the 1920s and 30s; Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize for Maus) and valleys (Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent) when it has come to acceptance as a genuine art. The slow rise in recognition the graphic novel has received over the course of the past two decades (from Watchmen and Maus to Jimmy Corrigan and Asterios Polyp) has gone a long way toward a wider acceptance of the form. With the publication of Abstract Comics: The Anthology, comics may be moving definitively in the direction of art-as-a-given territory and away from "comics aren't just for kids anymore" qualifiers.

When approaching Abstract Comics some reader reorientation may be required. Robert S. Peterson laments in his review that he was hoping for a book he could "open up and pour over" in the same manner he would Tom Phillips' A Humument (a brilliant piece of visual poetry). The reason for this defeated expectation may lie in the optimal method of digestion of one work vs the other. While A Humument may bear some resemblance to the works on display in Abstract Comics, it is a book composed of both words and pictures with the latter being composed of pictures exclusively. You can read A Humument as you would any work of comics, reading text while simultaneously taking in visuals. Reading Abstract Comics requires a different process of digestion as the normal vehicle of assimilating a narrative (text) is absent. The reader is not even aided by the presence of representational visuals as one might be in a more typical wordless comic or woodcut novel. You should approach these works in a manner similar to the way you might view a painting or sculpture. Look. Stare. Spend some time with each panel. See what it has to say. Think about it one way then another. There's nothing to decipher in the sense of a decoder ring or elaborate puzzle.

The range of works here are impressive. Some standouts for me (along with some subjective interpretations and comparisons) include: Blaise Larmee's I Would Like to Live There, a minimal but highly evocative piece, suggesting a lonely but inviting world of life just outside a city (possibly a homeless encampment); Derik Badman's Flying Chief, simple and meditative, it reminds me of Asian woodblock prints (it's also interesting from a formal perspective as detailed in the artist's bio); Mark Badger's Kung Fu (the original 1980 version), another interesting formal experiment, reminds me of that most comics-like of Cubist works, Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase; editor Andrei Molotiu's The Panic is the closest piece here that brings to mind the psychic energy of Kirby-style superhero comics with its heavy chaotic blacks over luminous colors; and Janusz Jaworski's various pieces that come off like comic strips from the Codex Seraphinianus.

The only complaint I can make is that the book may be too short. Full pages of the precursor paintings that are reproduced small in the introduction (a Google image search fails to reveal Jasper Johns' Alley Oop) and the addition of a semi-lengthy piece (15-25 pages or so) could possibly have provided a fuller picture of abstract comics' abilities. Regardless, this is a small quibble with a book that may represent a course change in how comics are perceived and produced in the coming years.

Paul, I should add, is the creator behind the wonderful conceptual comic Codex Optica:

Then there is John Hogan's great review at Graphic Novel Reporter:

...Molotiu has created a fun and accessible anthology here, one that’s smart and well-researched but not in the slightest bit obtuse. You don’t need to be an art snob to appreciate it; you just need an open mind. With that, the reward for Abstract Comics is quite lovely. And quite possibly a good opportunity for you to increase your appreciation for the comics format exponentially.


  1. I got a copy of the anthology a couple of days ago and so far I concur with Dwyer's review. I've been poring over the book and realizing that it really does require a radical readjustment, that this stuff can't be read as traditional comics. Even coming to the anthology already familiar with the semi-abstract work that contributing artists like Craghead and Hahn have done in other venues, I wasn't really prepared for a whole book of such forbidding distance and inscrutability. It's been fascinating to make that adjustment, to simply move with the shifting rhythms of Craghead's piece, or the non-sequitur transitions of Panter, or the minimalist design of McDonnell's piece, probably the biggest surprise in the book considering his other work; it looks like an experiment in panel layout and design with nothing filling the panels.

    I also agree with Dwyer that the book leaves me wanting more -- more context, in the form of precursors in other artforms, and more work from all the artists who leapt to mind as natural fits for this approach. I certainly found myself wondering if Jim Woodring had been asked to contribute, and I imagine a second volume would be just as enlightening.

  2. Thanks, Ed. To respond to you and to Paul (though I've already told Paul this via email), the book is as crammed as it could possibly be and still have the price be kept under $40. A problem with reproducing earlier work, especially earlier work from the realm of the fine arts, is copyright fees, many of which were significantly higher than what Fanta could afford to pay as a page rate. Therefore, if it came to including one piece that could be found somewhere else, or reproducing two or three new pages that were never previously published, I chose the latter option. And there was at least one famous comic artist whom I wanted to include, but whose page rate demands were so exorbitant that--well, let's just say that I had the option of reproducing four pages by that person, or close to eighty by others...

    I just gave a talk at CUNY on the "prehistory" of abstract comics--a greatly expanded version of the second half of my introduction. I'll probably publish it somewhere at some point, and I'll let you kow when I do that.

    As for Woodring et al., let's just say there is a definite possibility you'll see some further big names from the world of alternative comics if there is a second volume--and there probably will be one, if the first one sells well. So--buy!!

    By the way, Ed, I wish you would expand this comment--already a brief review in its own right--into a full-length review somewhere.

  3. Thanks for the follow-up, Andrei. Just to be clear, it's a testament to how good the book is that I'm wishing for more -- and I realize of course the problems of reprinting a lot of paintings and stuff like that. I think you made the right decision by tipping the balance towards unique work that could only be found here versus reprints.

    Anyway, I'm rarely motivated to write at length about comics, but after I've had this book for a while longer, I could definitely imagine giving it a more in-depth consideration. It certainly deserves it. It's a very rare thing to come across a work in any medium that so fundamentally questions the assumptions and ways of thinking about the medium itself in the way Abstract Comics does.

  4. Thanks, Ed--and I hope you do give it that more in-depth consideration at some point.

  5. How can I find the review you speak of by Robert S. Peterson? I'm currently working on a project that involves A Humument and comics . . .

  6. I think he's talking about a review on Amazon, now deleted (I guess). But I'd love to hear more about your work on the subject.


Please note that anonymous comments will be rejected.